Horse racing is one of the oldest equestrian performance sports with a history that dates back to 4,500 BCE. The purpose of horse racing (other than to gamble and win money) is to test the stamina or speed of horses over a distance. A horse’s owner also wants to earn the title “one of the fastest horses of all time.”
But you may not be interested in competing in horse races. No two horses are alike, and some horse breeds are better suited to speed. In contrast, other horses are better suited for different competitions and riding disciplines. Some equines make good work or therapy horses.
If you have a need for speed and are wondering what the fastest horse breeds are, I’ve got everything you need to know about the topic. Plus, I’ve compiled information about famous racehorses noted in history books for being fast.
My Bottom Line Up Front
If you don’t have time to check out the whole article now (but please do come back later), here’s the skinny on the fastest horses of all time:
Thoroughbreds are considered the fastest horse breed when running long distances, while quarter horses are the faster over short distances.
The 5 fastest horses of all time are:
- Man O’ War
- Winning Brew
A Closer Look at Horse Speeds
Horses are magnificent animals. Whether in a walk, trot, canter, or gallop, how they move is pure and graceful. On average, a horse can walk at a speed of 4.3 miles per hour, trot at 8 miles per hour, and canter at 10-17 miles per hour. The average speed is 25-30 miles per hour when most horses gallop.
However, how fast a horse moves depends on their build, muscle development, breed, and whether they have a rider on them (more on this soon). On the race track, trained racehorses can run at speeds of 40-44 miles per hour, and it takes them around 20 seconds to reach these faster speeds.
The fastest horse sprinting speed recorded was 55 miles per hour. An American quarter horse sprinted at this high speed over a distance of about 440 yards.
The Guinness World Record states that a two-year-old thoroughbred filly, called Winning Brew, is the fastest racehorse in the world at a speed of 43.97 miles per hour over a quarter-mile distance. Generally, the race distance for thoroughbreds is between 0.63-1.5 miles.
Hawkster, a three-year-old horse, holds the fastest time for 1.5 miles at a speed of 37.83 miles per hour. The horse that holds the record for the fastest (and steadiest) speed for a 100-mile race is an Arabian called Jayhal Shazal. The horse ran at an average speed of 17 miles per hour during the race; however, his final loop was at an average speed of 22 miles per hour.
Factors That Influence How Fast a Horse Runs
You’d think that a well-muscled, lean horse with tall legs would dominate all others in terms of speed. That isn’t the case, as various aspects influence how fast a horse sprints.
The stride of a horse is similar to a person’s stride. It’s how far a horse can travel in one leap, or the distance from where one of the horse’s hooves currently is and where that same hoof lands when the horse walks, trots, canters, or gallops.
A horse’s average stride is 12 feet, and that of a racehorse is 20 feet. However, the longest stride recorded was 28 feet and belonged to the racehorse Man O’ War.
The Rate of the Stride
The next factor that influences how fast your horse moves is their stride rate, which is the number of strides in a given time. A horse can stride 130-140 times per minute, while a champion racehorse has 160+ strides in the same amount of time.
A quarter horse has a naturally faster stride rate than a thoroughbred, which is why a quarter horse is faster. During a race, a thoroughbred needs to maintain their stride over a longer time and distance, so these horses are faster over longer distances.
Interesting fact: Seabiscuit was a much smaller horse than Man O’ War but outran the larger horse. Seabiscuit was more balanced and able to bring his legs forward faster, giving more strides in the same amount of time as the larger horse. Because of the higher stride rate, Seabiscuit was able to win against a larger horse.
The Angle of the Stride
The angle of the horse’s stride, which is the space between their front and back hooves measured when the rear hoof pushes off, helps you calculate how far the horse can flatten out when they race. Generally, a horse with a higher and superior stride angle has longer strides. And this horse is a faster horse.
Secretariat, a racehorse, had the highest stride angle recorded at 110 degrees. A fast horse has a long stride, excellent stride rate, a high stride angle, great muscle tone, a solid frame, a strong heart, and great airflow—not to mention the courage to run for the win.
The Horse’s Conformation
A horse’s conformation evaluates the animal’s musculature, body proportions in relation to one another, and bone structure. How a horse is built has a significant impact on their performance. The withers of a horse largely determine stride length. A horse with straighter shoulders will have a shorter stride, so ideally, a horse should have withers sloped at 45-50 degrees.
A horse’s neck should be well-muscled and well-proportioned to help the animal maintain a rhythmic stride. Such a horse will also be well-balanced while running, causing less fatigue while the horse races. This is especially important with thoroughbreds since if the horse gets tired, they won’t be able to perform and run at incredible speeds in a race.
The hindquarters should be balanced and symmetrical since these influence the horse’s speed and propelling power. The front legs of a horse should move in a straight line, as these limbs affect agility, speed, and stride quality.
Ideally, a horse should also have a short back and long neck to move well; a short back will be stronger to carry a rider or jockey. Overall, a horse’s confirmation should be average all around: average height, average muscling, and average length. Taller horses don’t run faster – they have a higher center of gravity.
The Jockey or Rider
The jockey’s or rider’s posture significantly influences a horse’s speed. The rider and horse need to be well-balanced. So, jockeys usually sit in a crouched position to minimize any disturbances to how the horse runs. A jockey also needs to weigh as little as possible since a heavier rider will negatively impact how fast a horse can run.
The Surface of the Track
The last consideration regarding horse speed is the track on which the horse races. A race track needs to be well maintained to optimize the horse’s stride. If the track isn’t well maintained or is wet, a horse needs more energy to perform a stride, which means the animal doesn’t run as fast as it usually can.
How to Increase Your Horse’s Speed
Even if you don’t have one of the fastest horse breeds, there are a few ways you can maximize your horse’s speed.
While horses love to just laze and graze all day, they need to run and get other forms of exercise to build muscle. So regularly training your horse is one of the best ways to increase their speed.
Keep your horse healthy by ensuring they eat high-quality food and add supplements when necessary to help optimize your horse’s speed.
A healthy horse is a horse that’s well taken care of. And a healthy horse that has regular vet and dental checkups and farrier work will only improve how fast your horse can run.
Record-Holders: The Fastest Horses
There have been quite a number of record-holding racehorses and other fast horses. Research states that around 80% of all the thoroughbred racehorses are descendants of Eclipse, a fast 18th-century British horse. Eclipse was a racehorse at the time, but he only participated in races for less than two years because of a race shortage, and no one was willing to bet against him.
Eclipse was average, which made the horse so special and fast. The horse’s body shape, musculature, and leg length were all in the normal range for a horse, resulting in the perfect “balanced speed machine.”
Here are the fastest horses in history:
Fastest speed recorded: 37.7 miles per hour
Secretariat is one of the most famous racehorses in history. This thoroughbred, called Big Red because of his enormous size, was the first horse to win the Triple Crown in 1973, 25 years after Citation won in 1948. This racehorse was named American Horse of the Year for two years running in 1972 and 1973.
The memory of Secretariat lives on in Disney’s 2010 movie Secretariat. The horse died in 1989 when he was 19 years old.
2. Man O’ War
Man O’ War shared Secretariat’s nickname – Big Red – even though he never won the Triple Crown. The racehorse won all but one of the 21 races he competed in. He was the unofficial American Horse of the Year in 1920. The New York Times honored Man O’ War, together with a big name like Babe Ruth, as outstanding athlete of the year.
The horse sired champion horses like War Admiral, Maid at War, Nightingale, and Battleship. One of his offspring, Hard Tack, sired Seabiscuit.
3. Winning Brew
Fastest speed recorded: 43.97 miles per hour
The Guinness World Record holder, Winning Brew, is the fastest racehorse of all time. She covered two furlongs, or a quarter of a mile, in just 20.57 seconds in 2008.
Citation was a Triple Crown winner in 1948. This racehorse won 32 races, and Citation won 16 major races consecutively. This record was unbroken for the next half a century.
Citation is the first racehorse in world history to earn $1 million in prize money.
Seabiscuit, like Secretariat, also has a movie made in his honor. In 1938, Seabiscuit was named American Horse of the Year. The year before, the racehorse won the Triple Crown race, beating War Admiral (Man O’ War’s son) by four lengths.
The horse won 11 of the 15 races he entered.
A Guide to 7 Fast Horse Breeds
You’ll notice that some of the fastest horses belong to a specific horse breed: the thoroughbred. However, other horse breeds are also quite fast.
Here are the fastest horse breeds:
1. American Quarter Horse
The American quarter horse is the fastest horse over a short distance. These horses run at 50 miles per hour on average during a race, but the fastest clocked time was 55 miles per hour.
This horse breed originated in the 17th century in the USA. The horse breed is named after the typical distance these horses race: a quarter of a mile. However, a quarter horse these days can race any of the 11 recognized distances, from 220 yards to 870 yards.
A quarter horse’s heavy chest, dense legs, and strong muscles allow these horses to run so fast – for a short distance.
This warm-blooded breed is intelligent and easy to train, so American quarter horses are primarily used as Western show horses for ranch work. Their speed aids in managing steers. The quarter horse can also be used as a shorter distance racehorse.
Thoroughbreds, a mix of the Godolphin Arabian, Darley Arabian, and Byerly Turk horses, race longer distances than American quarter horses. They generally race 1,108.8 yards (or 0.63 miles) to 2,640 yards (or 1.5 miles). Thus, these hot-blooded horses need to pace themselves over the course.
In general, thoroughbred winners run the Kentucky Derby, one of the Triple Crown races, at a speed of 37 miles per hour. Secretariat won this race at 38 miles per hour, while the record is held by Winning Brew’s 43.97 miles per hour.
Thoroughbreds weigh less than an American quarter horse, and they are taller too. These horses are mainly used as racehorses because of their fast speed. However, with their long legs and build, they also make excellent show horses and jumpers.
3. American Paint Horse
The American paint horse has a combination of equine conformation traits from the thoroughbred and the American quarter horse. As such, paints (as they are lovingly called) are fast horses. An American paint horse can run 350 yards in under 20 seconds (or 17.26 seconds, to be exact).
Because of their low center of gravity (these horses have relatively short legs) and strong hindquarters, paints are primarily used in Western riding disciplines. American paint horses can quickly accelerate and run at high speeds over very short distances.
Arabian horses are the fastest horse breed over the longest distances. These horses are known for their endurance, and the fastest Arabian horses run at 40 miles per hour. They have strong necks and legs, making Arabian horses ideal for endurance riding.
Arabian horses originated in the Middle East and are the oldest purebred horse breed.
A standardbred is another horse breed native to America. These warm-blooded horses are fast because they trot quickly. Even though standardbreds have a similar body as thoroughbreds, they’ve been bred specifically for their trotting speed. The fastest standardbred trotted one mile in 46.20 seconds.
Standardbreds are easy to train, and they are calm. These warmbloods are generally used in harness races.
An appaloosa is well-known for its distinctive spotted coat. Most appaloosa racehorses have an American quarter horse in their pedigree. As such, these horses are highly athletic. The Native American Nez Perce tribe initially used this horse breed for hunting and war. Nowadays, appaloosas can be found in Western riding disciplines, eventing, show jumping, fox hunting, and trail riding.
The fastest appaloosa ran 350 yards in 17.40 seconds. The fastest speed recorded for an appaloosa is up to 41 miles per hour.
The pure Spanish horse, also called an Andalusian, can run up to 50-55 miles per hour over a quarter-mile distance. This horse breed originated in Spain in the 15th century and was used in trade and travel. You’ll see Andalusians on the dressage track and in show jumping and long-distance racing these days.
Final Thoughts on the Fastest Horses of All Time
There are many fast horse breeds, but the ones that first come to mind are:
- Thoroughbreds for racing
- American quarter horses for racing over short distances
- Arabian horses for endurance riding
The latest horse to hold a record speed is Winning Brew; it’ll be interesting to see who the next record-holder will be for the fastest horse of all time.
Answer: Thoroughbreds are the fastest racehorses, and they can run the fastest over a longer distance. However, over a short distance, an American quarter horse is the fastest horse. But an Arabian horse can hold the steadiest fast pace for the longest distance.
Answer: The top 10 fastest horse breeds are:
• American quarter horse
• Black Forest
• American miniature horse
• Selle Francais
Answer: Technically, a cheetah is faster than a horse. Cheetahs run at 70-75 miles per hour; however, these predators can’t run at such fast speeds for more than a quarter-mile. On the other hand, some horses can run at a speed of 25-30 miles per hour. But the American quarter horse can run up to 55 miles per hour over a quarter-mile.
Horses, like the Arabian, can also run “fast” for longer distances – 20.5 miles per hour for 20 miles – and a horse’s speed will slowly decline if the horse runs for more than 30 miles.